With his blueprint for the Soviet future under fire in the country’s Parliament, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev made a dramatic vow Tuesday to stand fast: “Let them kill me, let them hang me from a cross--but I won’t abandon my position.”
Rejecting Gorbachev’s proposals, Estonia’s president said his Baltic homeland wants to be treated as an independent nation, nothing less. In a protest action, Moldovan deputies walked out of the Congress of People’s Deputies. Even the leader of Uzbekistan, a republic renowned for its obsequiousness to Moscow, decried how Gorbachev’s plan for a new Soviet federation was written.
“I think it’s useless,” Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said acidly, in what doubtless will be the critique of the Gorbachev proposals that carries the most weight as the Congress debates a new federal and constitutional structure intended to stave off Soviet economic and political collapse.
“Now we have the center, which simply informs us of its own version of the would-be treaty and tells us, ‘Just sign it'--almost at gunpoint,” Yeltsin told reporters in a low growl, complaining that he and leaders of other Soviet republics were ignored in the process. “You’ve got to bargain with those who will sign the treaty and not start by discussing it at (Communist Party) Central Committee plenums or whatever.”
As Congress proceedings opened Monday, Gorbachev, fighting to hold the country together, called for a nationwide referendum to decide whether constituent Soviet republics would unite to form a new federal state or break away.
In the Congress on Tuesday, Estonia’s President Arnold F. Ruutel noted deadpan that the Kremlin hadn’t insisted on a referendum in July, 1940, when, with Red Army troops occupying the then-independent Baltic state, a sham assembly was convened under intense pressure from Moscow to request Estonia’s admission into the Soviet Union.
What Estonia now wants from Moscow, Ruutel said, is not a referendum but an official protocol recognizing Estonia’s “political independence,” with negotiations to follow on its economic implications.
Vexed by such remarks, and complaining at one point that people in the 2,250-seat Parliament hadn’t listened to him, Gorbachev made a rare sally into a lobby near the Kremlin Palace of Congresses cloakroom to make sure his message was getting across.
Soviet and foreign journalists, restrained by a ring of elegantly dressed but burly KGB bodyguards, crowded around as Gorbachev said that despite the criticisms from Ruutel and other local leaders, he will insist on holding nationwide referendums on the union treaty and the controversial question of whether to allow private ownership of land.
Voting could take place this winter, Gorbachev said.
“If the vote calls for leaving the union, then the divorce process will begin,” Gorbachev said. “Perhaps something will remain in common, some interests maybe, but it can only be done in this way, through a referendum.
“Today, civilized society is growing together and moving toward understanding,” Gorbachev said, his bald pate shining under the TV floodlights. “As for us, we have moved toward a theory of confrontation between peoples, a theory of destruction.”
The Soviet leader became emotional as he said people should not forget the suffering of past generations. “The life of my family was full of injustices,” he said, recalling that his paternal grandfather was sent to a Stalinist labor camp.
With a rhetorical flourish--"Let them hang me from a cross,” he said dramatically--Gorbachev declared that nothing could change his views of what his country needs: “We must strive for unity.”
However, there did appear to be some give in the Kremlin leadership’s position on the treaty, whose guidelines call for confining responsibility for defense and other key spheres to the central government in return for more economic autonomy for the republics.
Noting that Ruutel and a Latvian official complained at the Congress that they were being pressured to sign the union treaty, Gorbachev ally Rafik N. Nishanov said: “That’s a lie. Not only has no one forced them, but no one has even offered them anything yet . . . just consultations.”
Meeting in a cavernous Kremlin hall dominated by a huge square-jawed portrait of Lenin, the Congress showed in microcosm Soviet society’s increasing divisions. At one point, delegates from the southwestern republic of Moldova stormed out, irate that Moscow had ignored their demand for a crackdown on restive local minorities.
Moldova’s deputy prime minister, Konstantin M. Oborok, said his countrymen were disappointed the Congress did not include discussion of their republic’s ethnic strife on the agenda. But the last straw was the admission into the hall of envoys from Moldova’s breakaway Gagauz and Slavic minorities, which now claim their own “republics” inside Moldova.
Even Uzbekistan President Islam A. Karimov, said by Kremlin insiders to have given Gorbachev his pledge of support on the union treaty, took the floor to echo Yeltsin’s objections that the proposed pact had been conceived “from the top down.”
“In our opinion, the center should not confide powers to the republics, but the other way around,” Karimov said.
Some criticism voiced by the Uzbek leader may have been intended to show that nobody could take his republic for granted, but it was yet more proof of how local officials and legislators have become increasingly disenchanted with the actions, or ineffectiveness, of Moscow.
Nishanov, who has been Gorbachev’s point man on union treaty negotiations with the individual republics, also disclosed the first details of how the referendum would work. If the majority of voters in a republic opt out of the new treaty, Nishanov told a news conference, that would not mean instant independence.
Instead, that republic would have to follow procedures laid down by a law on secession, passed this year, which fixes a cooling-off period and gives Moscow the right to demand compensation for investments made in the republic.
That law, however, says secession must be approved by at least two-thirds of a republic’s voters. Nishanov did not explain what the status would be of a republic where more than half of the voters rejected the union treaty but where independence advocates could not muster the two-thirds majority.